Leaf Litter

"You Said It" Survey Results

We learn what Leaf Litter readers think about agroecology.

By Amy Nelson

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For some of you, this may be your first encounter with the term “agroecology”. What does it mean, anyway? The Agroecology Research Group at the University of California Santa Cruz defines it as the “science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design, development, and management of sustainable agricultural systems.”

But what, exactly, does agroecology mean to you? Here’s how some of you defined the term:

» Farming in a sustainable manner to protect the ecology of the site and region.

» Taking care of the earth as we produce our foods.

» Sometimes adapting new ways with sustaining the earth while reaping food products and sometimes returning to ways that ancient native cultures have sustained the earth while reaping food.

» Human crop and domestic livestock production by or compatible with processes found in nature.

» Best (not perfect, depends on other human and physical geographic characteristics) fit of production type and process to the total environment.

» Application of ecological principles including sustainability principles to agro-ecosystems

» It researches and recommends sustainable means to feed the world’s people with the least harmful impacts on the natural environment.

» Scientific term defining the environmental connections and impacts between agriculture (a human endeavor) and ecology (natural and/or human environmental systems).

» Conducting agricultural enterprises while considering environmental and ecological impacts so that these impacts are minimized.

» Cultivation and land management that works with nature and uses natural system processes to produce and sustain production.

» Back in early elementary school days, I recall the native Americans supposedly showed the earliest colonists how they planted corn, squash, and beans together, along with fish carcass remains for compost. In undergrad applied entomology, we learned about the value insects play in pollination and integrated pest management.

» The wise management and use of agricultural resources based on sustainable ecological knowledge.

» Growing food and supporting ecosystem services that might otherwise be lost with conventional agriculture approaches.

A little over half of you (55%) say you or someone you know has been involved in a program or project that has applied principles of agroecology.

We wanted to know which impacts of conventional, industrial agriculture concern you the most. 27% of you said loss of natural areas and their associated ecological services. 19% of you cited non-point source pollution. 16% are most concerned about soil degradation and erosion, while 14% said loss of biodiversity. 6% of you said loss of pollinating species while 2% of you said flooding. 10% of you could not choose one impact you felt most concerned about.

57% of you believe unquestionably that is it possible for an agricultural system can regenerate biodiversity and ecosystem services while also producing enough food to feed the world’s increasing population. 11% of you, however, do not. The rest of you say, “it depends.” Here are some of your comments:

» It has to be small scale and oriented to feeding a LOCAL population. Our food production system as currently configured is inherently unsustainable.

» Only if we move to plant-based diet worldwide, eliminating the inherent waste in fossil fuel based “meat production”

» It remains to be seen whether permaculture, “sustainable” farming practices, agro-ecology can deliver the volumes needed to feed the world without compromising the future of the planet and its diversity. Better farming practices can certainly help to maintain or perhaps regenerate biodiversity and ecosystem services, but can they keep up with population growth?

» Plenty of food is being produced at this point. It is the corrupt governments of countries that are allowing their people to starve even when aid is brought to them. As far as biodiversity, monoculture practices need to change, and we need to encourage more free range and organic farming.

» If there is a good planner involved with some very creative thinking AND support of the producers it can be done.

» A few years ago, 45% of our food came from other countries; perhaps over half now. More varied local crops and seasonal local markets would help biodiversity and reduce transport costs.

» Generally environmental bottom lines are not adhered to: multiple use and values is a very difficult model to make work in practical terms

» Not sure, given global growth projections, but we’d damn well better try. I do believe we can (at least) do LESS ecosystem damage, grow better quality food, and transport, store and process it less.

» It’s going to take a commitment from the farming section, and government at all levels to partner and find innovative, sustainable, and cost-effective solutions.

» Depends on techniques used, organic farming or farming using chemicals, etc. It also depends on if farmers are farming to the physical edge of an area.

» Will be a possibility when the world’s population is brought back to carrying capacity.

Striving toward sustainability in agriculture is great. But how, exactly, to you recommend measuring sustainability? As one reader put it, “that would be a dissertation, not a comment box.” Nonetheless, many of you offered your suggestions:

» Quality and quantity of food produced.

» Carbon footprint fertilizer and pesticide inputs soil loss soil fertility.

» Net gain in native biological production and ecosystem services.

» Net import of energy and net export of pollutants; impacts to surrounding ecosystem including site and regional hydrology and habitat.

» Amount of goods that are produced locally and distributed to local retailers/consumers.

» Maintain/avoid existing natural areas and promote non-conventional farming practices through education and incentives.

» Measured by planetary health measures: biodiversity levels, population balance, reduced pace of global climate change, species no longer rushing to extinction, new ways of sustaining the earth.

» Economic, social and environmental sustainability need to be assessed but environmental sustainability is the core: i.e. the “hard sustainability” model. There should be no net loss of species or habitats.

» Somehow determining what the ‘maximum’ food production for a ‘system’ might be that allows the accompanying ecosystem to sustain or improve and measuring against that determination.

» Depth of “living” soil and increase of depth of living soil.

» Can the land support quality nutritional crops that produce heritage seeds and sustain a human population?

» By its ability to function with mostly local inputs.

» Productivity should not be measured by output of produce, but by the overall health of and increase of biodiversity & nutrient flow on a site. There are areas of the world that have long-term, sustainable agriculture such as 2,000-year-old Moroccan Food Forests.

» Create quantitative values for sustainability, e.g. carbon credits to create second and third bottom lines for commerce and create financial incentives to “tip” the market.

» By developing an agricultural sustainability tool that measures (or scores) the sustainability practices in use on a farm compared to the amount of acres actively used while measuring production output.

» Insect and plant diversity.

» Soil condition, diversity over time and space, plant and insect tolerance to pesticides as indicator of overuse.

» Amount of output (harvest) measured against the amount of harm to the environment.

» Estimate the ecosystem services (not in monetary value, but in scientific quantities such as carbon dioxide sequestered) that would have been provided by the native flora and fauna in the pre-developed state. Measure the ecosystem services after agroecological principles are applied to the post-developed/farmed land.

» Carrying capacity of the system versus output, fuel used from seed to table, water recharge, soil conservation per unit of food production, anything that links the inputs with outputs in terms of efficiency and sustainability.

» The measure of sustainability is historical consistency. When we’ve struck a balance between the management of agriculture and the natural environment, it is one that, while cyclical, is static.

76% of you believe that principles of agroecology can be applied anywhere food is grown (at any scale; in any part of the world. The rest of you disagree. Here’s what some of you had to say:

» More education is needed especially in the third world countries. For example: Give people a flock of ducks and teach them tradition methods for raising, breeding, harvesting and selling. A community can quickly become self-supportive as well as gain self-esteem and pride in themselves and their community.

» Less economically advanced countries may not have the resources needed.

» It will take profound political will and change of direction.

» I think they already were, for the first 99% of those 10K years. Now it will require MAJOR social-political rethinking, especially in places where the power-holders get rich off export crops.

» Subsistence farming does not provide incentives. You can be too impoverished to want to take the necessary risks.

» Education is the key. Farmers must be shown how and why such practices are important.

» Principles, yes. They must be broad in scope and flexible. In the bread basket where I live, we are losing valuable groundwater resources from unsustainable irrigation from the Ogallalah Aquifer. We need to find better ways of deriving profit from the land that don’t require constant watering, while trying to provide some ecosystem services.

» Diversity of scale is as important as diversity of plants.

» In the poorest of countries, it would be more difficult. In more developed countries, it could be possible, and particularly if the political arena is favorable.

We were curious to know what incentive(s) you think should be offered to farmers to encourage the enhancement and protection of ecosystem services on farmland. Many of you mentioned tax breaks and credits. Here are some of your other comments and suggestions:

» First off, remove perverse subsidies (e.g. corn for corn syrup). Farmers here in NC have tons of subsidies to do conservation practices. It’s the subsidies that encourage monocropping and policies that encourage resource-intensive agricultural products that need to be REMOVED first.

» Hobby farmers will follow practices that challenge them and give them enjoyment. Commercial farms must be given practical, monetary incentives.

» Subsidies contingent on protecting and/or regenerating ecosystem services.

» Organic farmers should be given tax breaks. There should be more laws, whether state or federal, discouraging the use of pesticides and hormones. Farmers should be given grants to assist them in incorporating more environmentally friendly practices.

» Funding/low-interest loans for transition costs.

» The most effective incentives would need to be determined by qualified, diverse teams at a more local scale, since what works best in one area could be ineffective, at best, to actually detrimental, at worst, in another area.

» Intrinsic incentives: our lives and the lives of our children and the lives of other plants and animals will be healthier and richer in our balance with mother earth.

» Use a cap and trade system.

» The money will win out. Use a cooperative stake in productive processes to manage the commons.

» Marketing assistance; priority in government purchasing; monetary

» Crop/farm subsidies shifted from things like corn and milk to small, local/regional farming operations.

» A limited time property tax rebate like in Woodbury County, Iowa.

» I believe in removing tariffs and subsidies on industrial agriculture worldwide, especially in developed western countries like the USA.

» Financial incentives to do it “right”, growing the “right” crops for human sustenance … not to grow as much as possible for economic gain. An example might be in Switzerland, where some of the farmers are given government subsidies to continue farming in the old tradition.

» Higher prices for higher quality food.

» Better market prices for documented best practices. Subsidies to revegetate some areas; research into crops that are better able to withstand environmental conditions such as reduced rainfall, salinity, etc.

» Assistance to switch to non-industrialized practices, marketing and market development and investment in public engagement and agroecological literacy for the average person.

» In developed nations they should be required to protect ecosystems because their actions always affect resources outside their direct area of influence.

» Ecosystem services cannot be monetized to any significant extent without introducing inflation that makes farmers worse off. Education and further development of ways to support ecosystem functions of farmland is the best alternative. Developing a consciousness in farmers of their role in preserving our planet and developing more benign farming methods that still result in good yields are the best approaches.

» Education, co-op transportation and marketing, reimbursement for loss of production land to increase buffers.

» Methods to make their life easier. For each type of farmer, find the most difficult problem and help them solve it in a sustainable manner.

» Open up free-market (no subsidies for agribusiness) and improvements to infrastructure to provide ways to get crops to market.

» Some type of special designation, such as “sustainably-grown” – grants and technical support – tax breaks.

» Society will have to place a value ($) on these ecosystem services, then either credits or direct payments to the farmer will have to paid for these services.

» Hard cold cash baby. As consumers, we can buy their products. As governments, we can give them the money that would’ve been spent to mitigate problems avoided.

» Capital financing, priority access to markets.

» Longevity of the farm, crops, and sustainability without dependency on other groups that do not have a vested agriculture interest.

» Restoration taxes or fees for non-farmland property owners.

» There should be no superficial incentives. While this might be an overtly optimistic outlook, sustainable farming practices should offer enough natural benefit – improved crops, community, quality of life, living situation – that outside incentives would not be necessary. This, of course, demands that the entire global farming system needs to be readdressed so that the focus is shifted to promotion of long-term development instead of short-term gain.

Many of you would like to see a removal of subsidies to “corporate agrobusiness conglomerates.” Other programs and policies you’d like to see put into place to ensure the long-term viability of agroecology include:

» Change any policy that encourages us to obtain vast quantities of basic foodstuffs from abroad that are possible to grow domestically. The end of cheap oil will help.

» Government funding for research and policy implementation based on research results. Initiate policies at federal level to address most efficient methods/incentives for maintaining agroecology.

» This is a huge topic: policies needed to protect environmental sustainability; in New Zealand this means an upgrading of the Resource Management Act and proper monitoring of the State of the Environment. Education programs to instill ecological understanding into all aspects of the farming operation. Better monitoring of resource development and use by local government. Proper environmental accounting i.e. real costs of usage and degradation of air, water and soil built into to economic models i.e. environmental and biodiversity are not free resources which can be owned/controlled by a small number of private individuals.

» Animal registration & food safety regulations should be different for short-term local vs. long-term national food storage & distribution.

» More stringent monitoring of water quality. Highlight and publicize good farm management examples. Farmers are great at looking over the fence to see what their progressive neighbors are doing.

» In the US income maintenance and universal health care. The research and education services encompassed in “extension service” have been very successful in introducing conservation and production practices.

» Transparent uniform labeling of foods that include ‘sustainability” factors.

» Look at cost analysis and comparisons of true cost accounting for various means of food production – including loss or gain of ecological services and tangential benefits, look at cost recovery and incentive support through tax shifting.

» Tax subsidies and federal aid for conversion to more ecological practices in farm management. Stronger education programs to train farmers in the new practices along with continued funding of research to develop better methods.

» A national insurance policy to guarantee that farmers who convert their farms to organic or practice other ecological methods will not fail in the first years after conversion.

» Reduce subsidies to current practice and continue work to modify markets to recognize this practice is better for the planet, humans, and sustainability of the environments that we know (and will continue to learn about). Identification of markets of certain areas to take advantage of climate. Build incubator systems, whereby, a transition will move business in this area from research and development into practice.

» Education and policies that support long-term sustainability rather than short term short lived productivity.

» There are several institutions that are already charged with regulating agriculture. The trick is to shift their focus to developing long-term sustainable solutions. Policies should reward positive growth and exploration of new methods.

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